Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the joint session of Congress this past week was revealing. It brought to my mind James B. Duke’s testimony more than a hundred years ago explaining and excusing his tobacco monopoly. Zuckerberg would have understood Duke’s argument: that people have always smoked and that he was only giving them what they wanted—at an enormous profit. Zuckerberg might well insist that people only want to connect, and that he is only providing them with the means.
But Buck lived at a time when the concept of the charming puer was perhaps less accepted as an excuse for just about any kind of behavior; I doubt that he would have said with insouciance, as Zuckerberg did when asked whether Facebook was a monopoly, “It doesn’t feel like one.” In other words, if it doesn’t feel like one to the creator, it isn’t one.
Duke had created a monopoly, and he knew it, and also seemed to accept the government’s intervention, which Zuckerberg seems reluctant to do if the government—unlikely as it seems—begins to control Facebook, bringing it into compliance with Federal laws such as the Fair Housing Act, which real estate advertisements on Facebook continue to flout.
I also doubt that Duke, who ran his British-American Tobacco Company with a group of trusted men, would have thought it was amusing to hire an overseer who would be called, “the grownup in the room.” That overseer too often seems to be a woman whose role is to disguise and when called out, excuse the manipulations of her boss.
But Duke, like Zuckerberg, may never have accepted responsibility for creating a mass appetite for his product. Nicotine addiction didn’t exist until he invented the kind of tobacco that produces smoke that can be inhaled. Earlier products, relying on dark tobacco, produced smoke too caustic to be drawn into the lungs. The need to put something in our mouths is probably universal, but the need to inhale nicotine was created by the first cigarettes.
In the same usefully naïve spirit, Zuckerberg kept talking about how he has created a way for people to connect, which has now become another toxic addiction. It is true that many if not all human beings want to connect with other human beings, especially those we find sympathetic, but the form of the connection—through the screen—was never before a means to that end.
Whether connecting through Facebook is actually a connection is certainly open to debate. With all the other means of connecting eliminated—the sound of someone’s voice, the touch of someone’s hand, the cursive on an envelop, the nuance of actual presence—the connection is brittle and limited, which allows for many abuses. Few people would say, face to face, or even write in a letter, what they feel free to write on a screen.
But this brittle connection is so easy, and we all love what is easy. There is no need to plan, to make a phone call, to write a note, to wait for a response. It is all instantaneous, which feeds our enormous appetite for instant gratification. We don’t have to imagine the look on the face of the person we have just insulted, because we don’t have to see that face. We don’t have to witness the hand, trembling with frustration, of the person we have just demeaned, because we don’t have to see that hand. We are operating in a ghost world, and calling it all “connection.”
Meanwhile our culture is gripped with loneliness. Somehow all these connections don’t connect in any way that feeds the spirit. But they do give an illusion, priceless, it seems, of millions of friends who like us—or at least push the key that indicates they do. How much more complicated it is to assemble a group of friends who actually like us—and how could that group ever be so large?
Zuckerberg leaned hard on the way he began Facebook, in his dorm room at Harvard. Perhaps he took an English course and absorbed Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Only connect,” spoken by the most disconnected and humanly destructive poet in the pantheon.
And indeed it seems to be an undergraduate dream that Zuckerberg has developed into a monster: the dream of easy human closeness. It’s the same dream that makes young women get drunk and go looking for a “hook-up”—sex with no consequence, no tomorrow. It’s junk food of the soul.
How terrifying it is to be a part of a culture that has given itself to this addiction. It will take more than a Twelve Step program to break us of our faith in what Facebook pretends to provide: an easy way out of our eternal human loneliness.
[For more on James Buchanan Duke, listen to my reading from The Silver Swan at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.]